Weapons That Were Ahead of Their Time


Warfare has always provided the impetus for advancing more efficient methods of killing one’s fellow man. History shows nearly every extended period of warfare found new weapons proposed and developed, which often failed because existing technology incapable of supporting the design. For example, the earliest land mines, filled with gunpowder, often failed because the moisture of the earth in which they were concealed seeped into the powder, rendering it useless.

As advances in metallurgy and chemistry discovered better ways to manufacture weapons and fling them at each other, scientists, artists, mathematicians, and others presented weapons which for the most part foretold many of the weapons in use today. They were ahead of their time, but as technology caught up with the idea, many became formidable weapons. Here are 10 weapons of the past which were ahead of their time.

10. The death ray

Death rays have long been a staple of science fiction and spy novels, but they have an historical background as well. Archimedes, the famed philosopher and mathematician who expounded on the potential of levers designed one during the Punic Wars. Besides designing a weapon known as Archimedes Claw, used to ensnare and capsize Roman ships during their assault on Syracuse, ancient historians described another weapon he designed which focused the rays of the sun on the wooden hulls of the Roman ships.

The death ray was a series of mirrors which when angled by their operators concentrated the sun’s rays on their target, causing extreme heat which led it to burst into flame. Whether the weapon was actually used is debated, with most scholars arguing that it did not. One basis for the argument is that its use was never repeated, indicating that even if it was tried, it likely failed. But experiments at MIT using a sketch model of a Roman ship built of oak and over 100 mirrors indicated the weapon would have worked. After some failures caused by cloud cover, the model burst into flame. That alone wasn’t proof that Archimedes deployed a death ray, but the feasibility of the idea was confirmed.

9. Tessarakonteres

Several ancient texts describe a massive warship built by Ptolemy IV of Egypt called Tessarakonteres, Greek for forty. Athenaeus described the vessel, a catamaran galley, as carrying 4,000 rowers, up to 3,000 soldiers, and several hundred supernumeraries. According to his account, the ship’s twin hulls were 420 feet long (280 cubits), and the rowers followed the scheme known as trireme (three tiers of oars per side). Plutarch disputed the description in his account, assigning the designation of polyreme to the vessel, meaning there were four tiers of rowers, each with a single man per oar, in lengths of 40 on each side.

The massive vessel was equipped with several rams fore and aft, and its considerable deck space (despite the crowding of more than seven thousand men) offered support for catapults and archery platforms. Despite its heavy armament, Plutarch in describing the vessel claimed its role was ceremonial only, and that it seldom left its moorings and never went to battle at sea. The ship was one of the first, if not the first, to be built in a drydock, in order to facilitate its launching following construction. The vessel was the largest rowed vessel ever constructed, as well as the largest built in antiquity. Whether it was ever used as a weapon of war though is unlikely.

8. The corvus

Although the most famous Carthaginian today is undoubtedly Hannibal, a general who led his army across the Alps, Carthage was primarily a maritime nation. This fact gave the Carthaginians an advantage at sea against the Romans, who were primarily a military power, reliant on the disciplined soldiers of their legions. To counter the Carthaginian’s advantages at sea, a means of using their legionnaires (at sea called marinus) to attack the enemy’s ships was needed. The corvus was a device developed by the Romans in the form of a drawbridge, protected on its sides, and mounted in the bow of a ship. The corvus was swung over the side, and through pulleys and ropes allowed to drop to the deck of an enemy ship.

A heavy, sharp spike on the bottom of the corvus anchored it into the enemy’s deck, and the marinus advanced across the bridge to attack. The size of the corvus allowed the Romans to advance side by side in ranks of several men, shields raised to protect them, in the same manner as the phalanx on land. The corvus brought Rome’s advantage in infantry to sea, and led to several naval victories in the First Punic War. However, the added weight in the ship’s bow resulting from the device made vessels unstable, particularly in heavy seas, and the Romans abandoned the use of the corvus before the end of the First Punic War.

7. Greek Fire

A weapon similar to napalm, and cast from a flame thrower, first appeared in the late 7th century in the hands of the Byzantine Empire. It became known as Greek Fire when it was encountered by the European Crusaders. Likely made of quicklime and naphtha, it developed as a naval weapon because it offered the advantage of continuing to burn on the surface of the water. The Byzantines equipped ships with nozzles from which the Greek Fire was forcefully emitted, self-igniting and setting fire to enemy ships. Attempts to extinguish the flames with water invariably failed, and the wooden ships so beset were doomed.

The Byzantines went to great lengths to keep the actual composition of Greek Fire a secret, making it one of recorded history’s earliest secret weapons. It played a major role in the successful defense of Constantinople against the Muslims, seriously damaging the Arab fleets. Eventually the manner of deployment (which was by siphon) was discovered by the Byzantine’s enemies, including the Arabs and the Bulgars, but the exact compound was never learned outside of the Byzantine Empire. The secrecy with which the Byzantines guarded their weapon was so strict that the actual composition is lost to history.

6. Land mines

Land mines are highly controversial today, and their use is widely believed to be a relatively modern innovation. That belief is false. They first appeared in China during the 13th century, when the Song Dynasty used them against the invading Mongols. Most were set with fuses lit, meaning the user had to time his movements carefully in anticipation of the arrival of the enemy. The earliest known mine which was triggered by movement consisted of a length of waterproofed bamboo. The device was packed with gunpowder and iron shards, and a triggering device of ingenious design attached. The trigger consisted of a weight, held in place by a pin.

When the device was stepped on the pin dislodged, dropping the weight into a small wheel assembly, which rotated and generated sparks, igniting the gunpowder. The mines were usually concealed in trenches using boards to cover them. Although they worked, they were generally unreliable, and the Chinese eventually abandoned their use, saving their gunpowder for more efficient uses in killing their enemies. About three centuries after the Chinese abandoned land mines, European militarists began to develop them, and they appeared in Germany in the 16th century. By the early 19th century, with the development of the percussion cap, victim-triggered mines became reliable and deadly.

5. Sea mines and torpedoes

The self-propelled torpedo, launched from a ship or aircraft to attack another ship, is another invention which can be traced to the 13th century. During the Mamluk Sultanate (1250-1517) an Arab engineer, chemist, and inventor named Hasan Al-Rammah developed several new compounds of gunpowder, fuses, and the means of using them. One of them was a self-propelled weapon for use in naval warfare. He described his new weapon as an “egg which moves itself and burns.” The design was for a weapon which moved across the surface of the water, propelled by a rocket. Hasan developed the weapon in the mid-13th century.

Hasan’s “egg” was built from a pair of metal sheets, hammered into the necessary shape, and filled with naphtha and saltpeter. It also contained metal filings to facilitate longer burning. The device was placed in the water, aimed in the direction of the target, and the rocket ignited. A tailpiece was attached to the rear of the egg to maintain it on its desired course. There is no record of the device being used in warfare, but it was the first self-propelled anti-ship weapon in history. Today such devices are known as torpedoes, run beneath the surface, and are the primary weapon of the submarine,

4. Leonardo da Vinci’s armored car

Tanks first appeared in warfare on the Western Front during World War One, as part of an attempt to break the deadlock of trench warfare. But weapons similar to the modern tank predated that conflict by centuries. Leonardo da Vinci designed and generated drawings of the first armored car in 1485. He designed a vehicle capable of moving in any direction, and like modern tanks carried a variety of weapons. Leonardo also anticipated the use of tanks as demonstrated by the German Army during the Blitzkrieg in early World War II. Describing his vehicle in a letter to the Duke of Milan he claimed that the armored cars would lead an assault, breaking the enemy’s ranks, “And behind these the infantry will be able to follow quite unharmed and without any opposition.”

Modern study of Leonardo’s armored car reveals a number of flaws in his design which would have rendered the vehicle unworkable. The complexity of the steering system and the use of cogged wheels, themselves too thin for their purpose, would make the armored car as designed virtually unable to maneuver. The use of black powder for the car’s several cannon would have made the air within unbreathable in even a short period of fighting. Leonardo’s armored car was a weapon proposed well before technology had advanced to the point of making it workable.

3. 33 barreled organ

The 33 barreled organ was not a musical instrument, though its barrels resembled the pipes of an organ, which gave it its name. The organ, another invention of Leonardo da Vinci, was designed to increase the rate of fire of small caliber field artillery. Like all gunpowder weapons of the 16th century, cannons were slow to load. Leonardo envisioned a weapon in which three tiers of cannon were aligned with eleven guns each. The tiers were installed on a rotating platform. After the first tier of cannon fired, the platform was rotated, aligning the second tier with their targets. After they fired, the process was repeated with the third tier aimed at the target.

As the third tier was aligned and fired, the barrels of the second were swabbed for cooling, and the first was reloaded. In Leonardo’s vision., the weapon could thus offer a continuous, or at least a near continuous rate of fire. As with his armored car, the weapon was never used in warfare, and it probably was never actually built, existing solely in his drawings and notes. But it served as the precursor to continuous fire weapons such as the multi-barreled gatling gun, which is still a major weapon in use in militaries around the world.

2. The submarine

The most powerful weapon in the naval arsenal in today’s navies is the nuclear submarine, capable of striking targets at sea and on land. Submarines were proposed and developed for centuries. There is evidence that Alexander the Great’s army used a primitive diving bell for reconnaissance at Toledo. A submersible ship was demonstrated in the River Thames in the early 17th century. The goal of approaching an enemy ship while submerged, hidden by the blanket of the sea above, proved elusive until the Turtle, built by David Bushnell and operated by Ezra Lee, attacked HMS Eagle in New York harbor in 1776. The attack failed, and some historians question whether it ever really occurred.

There is no question of the attack of the Confederate submarine Hunley on USS Housatonic. Hunley sank the Union ship with a spar-attached explosive charge, so damaging itself that the submarine also sank, with all hands lost. By the First World War, submarine’s advanced technology allowed them to attack and sink large vessels of all types, and during the Second World War the capital ships of all navies, battleships, aircraft carriers, and cruisers, all proved highly vulnerable to submarines. First proposed and experimented with centuries ago, submarines today are the capital ships of several of the world’s navies.

1. Ironclad warships

The first ironclad warships in the world were not the Monitor and the Merrimack (CSS Virginia) as so many believe, though they were the first to fight another armored ship. Armored ships appeared in Korea in the 16th century. Called Geobukseon, or turtle ships in the west, they were an important weapon in the Korean Navy for nearly three centuries. Their chief feature was a rounded top deck, which was covered in iron. The covering afforded protection for the crew below from fire, cannon, and arrows. The iron deck was itself covered with sharpened iron spikes to deter enemy boarders.

The turtle ships were pierced along the sides for oars, and for cannon. Over the centuries the latter changed as technology advanced. Several historians argue the ships were not in fact plated with iron in the 16th and 17th centuries, though they agree that the rounded top deck was lined with iron spikes. Regardless of whether they were or weren’t, the turtle ships were a highly successful design, and led the Koreans to numerous victories against the Japanese. Like the longboats of the Vikings, the turtle ships featured a dragon’s head on their bows, some of which were used to release toxic smoke as they approached the enemy preparatory to ramming them, a sight designed to terrify the opposing crew.

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